Tough row to hoe in Louisiana

Hurricanes Rita and Katrina caused $1.6 billion in damage to the state's farm economy.

This is the time of year when Emmett Fowler would be pulling bright navel oranges, sweet satsumas, and juicy grapefruit from his citrus trees. Instead, Mr. Fowler expects he will be plowing under his 2,000 lifeless fruit trees.

"The state will have to test the soil for salt and crude oil," says Fowler as he looks out at his groves - now not much more than leafless pieces of wood with stray, discolored oranges - and talks about whether he will be able to recover. "Most of the trees were under 14 feet of water."

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have left similar scenes of devastation across the state. State economists now estimate the losses to Louisiana's farm economy at $1.6 billion - ranging from strawberry fields that were washed away to entire forests that had 10 to 15 years' worth of timber destroyed. And, because of the salt-water flooding, agriculture experts say the damage could stretch on for years.

"The losses are bigger than anything else we've ever had," says Kurt Guidry, an agricultural economist with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center in Baton Rouge. "There was nothing that we grow that was not impacted."

Crops lost

In the southern part of the state, the vegetable and citrus industries were heavily damaged. For example, in Plaquemines Parish, farmers lost their crop of bell peppers, tomatoes and eggplant, says Regina Bracy, a professor of horticulture at the LSU Ag Center. Most strawberry growers had already put down costly plastic mulch, most of which got blown away. "Vegetables are a $40 million crop, strawberries are a $10 million crop," says Ms. Bracy. "That may not be big by California standards, but it's significant in this particular parish."

For some farmers, the damage to their crops is coming from an unusual source - wild animals that are hungry because their normal food is now missing. That's the case with Lester L'Hoste in Braithwaite, La. As he walks through his citrus groves, he points to damage done to his trees by hungry deer. "They eat the leaves and the fruit," he says.

Further south in the state, the damage is much greater. LSU Ag Center's Citrus Research station in Port Sulphur was totally destroyed as the storm surge wiped out equipment and buildings.

Many farmers in the southern part of the parish have suffered the same fate as Fowler, who has lost his yearly income of about $57,000, depending on prices. The loss of the trees hurts Fowler more than the money. His product was so good, he says, that a local oil man and baseball fan used to ship cartons of his citrus to people like George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees.

His house may be lost, as well. "You can see where the water level hit - about 14 feet up," he says.

Some of the small farmers, such as Fowler, may get some aid from the Louisiana Small Farm Survival Fund, which is run by Baton Rouge Economic and Agricultural Development Alliance (BREADA). So far, the Survival fund has raised about $175,000, which will be distributed to subsistence farmers.

"Our hope is to keep them on the farms, keep them from being displaced like the residents in urban areas," says Copper Alvarez, the executive director of BREADA.

Elsewhere, some farmers whose crops withstood the wind and floods watched their produce wither after weeks without electricity meant they couldn't irrigate. "We're still in a drought situation," says Professor Bracy. "We've had no significant rain since Katrina or Rita."

For farmers, the problems seem never-ending. After the hurricanes, there were shortages of diesel. This prevented farmers from using their generators, which could have powered their irrigation pumps. Dairy farmers, also without electricity, lost milk sales.

Other farmers have had trouble finding workers, many of whom are stuck in Houston or other cities. "They are scrambling to find people to plant their crops on top of everything else," says Bracy.

Heavy toll on timber industry

On a dollar basis, the largest agricultural losses are in the timber industry, which lost $1.1 billion in product, Mr. Guidry estimates. In some parishes, some 80 percent of the trees were either knocked down or broken. Historically, only 20 to 25 percent can be salvaged. "It goes from a price based on saw timber to a price based on pulp wood and the difference is pretty substantial," says Guidry.

However, Wade Camp, an economist with the Southern Forest Products Association in Kenner, La., estimates the total damage to the timber industry is less than 10 percent. He's worried about the shortage of loggers since many are now working for FEMA. "How long will that last?" he asks.

Some farmers will eventually receive federal money. The Emergency Conservation Program will pay to have debris removed from land in production.

Even before the hurricanes hit, Guidry says it was going to be a tough year for the farmers, struggling with higher fuel and fertilizer costs and stagnant prices. "But, now the hurricanes have turned a bad situation into a terrible situation."

Still, Ms. Alvarez is optimistic that small farmers such as Fowler will fight to survive. "They don't take things lying down," she says. "I think most think they will be back."

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